Breeding Rabbits and Cavies

Too many people get into the breeding of small animals (cats included) for quite the wrong reasons. They seem to think they can make money this way, either as a way of getting rich quick or of earning some money on the side. EITHER WAY, IT DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT. First, pet shops donít pay much for rabbits (about $5 - $10 if you are lucky and $2 for cavies). Secondly, you barely cover costs usually and one trip to the vet can put you well behind.

Breeding small animals is a hobby and like most hobbies worth anything, it is a labour of love that costs money rather than earns it. You must be prepared to spend money to provide plenty of good quality food, decent accommodation and the means to keep it clean and to provide proper medical care.

You canít cut corners. You canít, for example, crowd animals into one or two cages to save on buying (or having built) more cages. You canít stint on the quality of the materials you use to house them, either.

You must be prepared to take them to the vet if they are ill no matter what that costs and not think you can do it all yourself.

Unless you have the time to grow your own, you must be prepared to buy (at drought-inflated prices) veggies from the supermarket especially for your cavies who must have their Vitamin C.

You must be prepared for some heartache and frustration. Rabbits have a habit of not breeding despite popular mythology. The does can re-absorb their litters so though successfully mated, they produce nothing. This happens in harsh conditions like droughts.

Then there are fickle and flighty does who will not stand to the buck and Iíve never found forced matings to be particularly successful as the little minxes seem to re-absorb out of spite! If they do go to term, they may scatter the litter and not make a nest. The bucks can go temporarily sterile in the heat.

Cavies donít seem to be quite as difficult but they can lose litters, too, or stop breeding. Sometimes it is difficult to obtain stock in your chosen breed. Sometimes you "plateau out" Ė get so far but not seem to progress further in reaching the ideal rabbit or cavy.

Basically, you must actually like the small animals you breed, no matter how annoying some individuals may be. Patience is important. Donít be put off because you donít always get a Challenge Certificate (rabbits) or Best of Breed (cavies) let alone win a Best in Group or Best in Show.

Likewise, donít be put off because people chatter about you. If some people paid more attention to whatís going on in their own shed and not what may or may not be happening in someone elseís weíd all be better off. Itís such a shame to see newcomers who are starting to do well get driven out of the fancy by the small-minded and the spiteful.

Keep good and accurate records. Always supply breed papers (pedigrees) to fellow breeders. To much valuable information on various lines has been lost because some breeders never keep records, let alone pass them on.

There are some who think pedigrees are meaningless. They are not. They tell you exactly how old your rabbit or cavy is (rabbits do have the year on the leg ring but not the month). They also tell you who the parents are and what relation (if any) the animal may have to what you have in your shed.

This is useful if you donít want to mate a brother to a sister. This also lets you know if the animal is a complete outcross or has something in common with your own stock, useful if you want to gauge how well the introduced line might "nickí with your own. Of course, a pedigree is only as good as the person compiling it, hence the need for accuracy.

The pet market should not be your motive for breeding. It is very fickle. One minute everyone want s a bunny, or possibly everyone wants a Mini Lop. Then at another time, you canít even give away your bunnies.

No reputable breeder should sell a rabbit or cavy as a "surprise" Christmas present. Easter is another dodgy time for impulse buying as punters decide their kids would like a real Easter Bunny.

A child should be at least six, preferably seven and the parent should realise that they will be the primary carer of this new pet as children with the best will in the world are not going to be able to look after it full time.

A rabbit or cavy should be no different than a puppy or a kitten in that it should be a family pet, not just the childís pet. Everyone should take an interest in it and its welfare. Just because the child loses interest does not mean it should be re-homed or returned to the breeder. How irresponsible!

For these reasons, the acquisition of such a pet should be done with the child fully part of the process, aware of what s/he is getting into, what his/her responsibilities are. The parents should make sure the child is ready for a pet, too. Under no circumstances should such a pet be sprung on the child as a surprise. It is best if child and parent visit a breeder first not only to chose a pet but to discuss its requirements and get advice.

Certainly cavies and rabbits are cute but they are also living creatures and individuals. Rabbits, for example, can be manipulative little bastards, every bit as bad as cats with much the same attitudes and bad habits. Anyone who thinks they sit quietly in a cage and eat carrots has another think coming.

The does, especially of some breeds like the Rex, Mini Rex and Polish, can be extremely territorial and aggressive. Dwarf Lops are cheeky and chase cats. Most rabbits will head-butt you or even nip if you stop patting them before they are finished, or ignore them in the first place. Few rabbits back down from a fight, contrary to the popular image of timidity. As someone said somewhere, "Rabbits make formidable foes".

Again contrary to some popular views, the cute little bunnies are not suitable as childrenís pets (Polish, Netherland Dwarfs) but the bigger ones are (Satins, Dutch, Silver Fox, British Giants). The bigger the rabbit, the more placid. Bucks usually make better pets than does (though in some breeds there is little difference).

Cavies can be just as political. There are some sows who are real Tartars and bully not only other sows they are housed with but also the boar. Some sows drive the boar out of the hutch and wonít let him back in. These, needless to say, can only go as pets where they will be on their own.

Usually, however, cavies should live in groups of at least two. Boars can be run together as long as there are no sows around. Cavies are herd animals. Cavies can be loud and demanding with all the charm of a Dalek, especially when you get home late at night after a long day at work.

So Getting Started in Rabbits and Cavies. These are just some basic pointers for those interested in breeding.

First and foremost: Donít have too many breeds. This is a common mistake made by new chums (and, sad to say, some not-so new chums). There are so many lovely breeds and colours out there, it can all be a bit bewildering and there is a strong temptation to have them all, or at least all those which strike your fancy. (This is an even worse problem in the cavy fancy, probably because they are small and Ďjust a few more wonít hurtí.)

Never have more animals than you can comfortably handle, that is clean out properly each week, and feed and water and check for problems daily. Instead, go to a lot of shows, talk to the breeders of those which interest you, and visit their rabbitries.

Ask about the pros and cons of the various breeds and short-list them. It is best to start with just one or two breeds. After all, most of the best breeders in Britain tend to specialise in one or at most two breeds. That way you can concentrate your efforts to breed the best bunnies or cavies you can.

Your best animal in your shed should be your buck or boar in whatever breed(s) you choose. So buy the best specimen you can afford with the least faults.

The does and sows, too, should not be neglected. They should also be of good type with no major faults, particularly in cavies as the sow in most breeds is the show animal. The ideal is to have all the features you need in your shed, spread across several animals.

If your buck lacks ear carriage (for example), he should be mated to a doe with good ear carriage. Donít mate two animals together with the same fault. You should breed to compensate for faults. If you lack the qualities you need, say all your rabbits have narrow shoulders, move some on and acquire some which do not have this fault. You will never get good shoulders in them if no rabbit you own has good shoulders no matter how often or by what method you breed.

When buying foundation stock, donít just buy a rabbit or cavy because it is cute or happens to be available. Does it fit in with your breeding program? What is its background, it is likely to Ďnickí or Ďmeshí with the lines you have? If you have only Orange rabbits, donít buy a Black one.

The best plan is to breed like to like Ė Orange to Orange, Agouti to Agouti (as is done a lot in Britain and in the cavy fancy there and here), but this is not always possible with rabbits. So the next best thing is to try to have colours which go together Ė there are websites and charts around which will tell you this. This is so you wonít end up with washed out colours, lots of foreign hairs or unshowable colours.

You can use line-breeding or in-breeding to fix type. The down-side of this is that it can also set faults in concrete. For example, you may have an outstanding Dutch buck, well marked, the correct cobby type and a doe, quite well marked but with a narrow, snaky head (seems to be a number of those about just now). You mate these two and take a promising daughter and mate her back to her father. If necessary mate her daughter back to the grandfather. With any luck you have now got his type established in your line.

Type often gets overlooked, especially with the Ďmarkedí varieties (Dutch, English and the Butterflies in other breeds) as breeders strive to get the markings right. But as an old-time Dutch breeder said, "If you havenít got the type, you havenít got a Dutch." It is really a question of balance, not to concentrate too much on one feature at the expense of the others. Colour, type, pattern, ear set/carriage and so on are all important to present a well-balanced rabbit. Otherwise we would end up with the sort of Ďextremeí look seen in some cat and dog breeds.

The next most important thing is selection. Carefully and ruthlessly assess the offspring. If they are not up to the standard, lack type (even if they have nearly the correct markings), sell them on as pets.

Donít just keep them because you bred them or they are the last litter from a doe you were really fond of. Thereís no point having a shed full of mediocre rabbits or cavies. They just take up space which should go to rabbits or cavies you can do something with. Of course, a less than perfectly marked or coloured doe can still be used in a breeding program provided she has type and other good features and is off good lines. Some Ďghost chinchillasí or Ďfrosty pointsí (both unshowable colours) have very good type.

As an aside. donít foist these never-gonna-be bunnies on to another breeder looking for stock. Narrow heads and aeroplane ears in a Lop, for example, are pet quality only.

So you select only the most promising if you want to improve your herd and not get stuck in a rut or go downhill.

Donít breed from unhealthy animals and that includes those with poor immunity, tendencies to weepy eyes, even if it isnít a disease and so on. As noted in an article in Fur &Feather, youíll get all sort of excuses Ė itís the wind, the way he slept, sawdust and so forth. (One of the best I heard of was at a cat show on the Illawarra where the exhibitor excused her catís weepy by saying it was caused by the wind. What, coming down the Bulli Pass? As if.) This is just fooling yourself and you will do yourself no good in the long run.

This goes double for hereditary problems. Rabbits or cavies with these, such as malocclusion should not be bred from, no matter how close to the standard they are. I pulled a cavy boar out of my Abyssinian breeding program I had bred myself and who had done quite well as he had a persistent skin problem which seemed to be the result of an allergy to either hay or rice hulls. Certainly he improved remarkably when moved into an outside cage in the garden. I did not want to breed from him in case this problem could be passed on.

In the cat fancy, there is a disease which appears to affect mainly Abyssinians and Somalis known as pyruvate kinase deficiency (PK deficiency, not to be confused with PKD - polycystic kidney disease, which affects Persians). It is hereditary and ultimately fatal. There is a DNA test which can determine if a cat is normal, a carrier or affected. There was quite a bit of debate last year about using carriers in breeding programs. Quite a lot of breeders said they would because the DNA test would tell them if the resulting kittens would be carriers or normal. (Only carrier to carrier would produce affected kittens but they were talking about carrier to normal). My reaction along with a number of cavy breeders and one judge I mentioned it to was a horrified, "No, no and again no!"

The reason the cat breeders gave for using carriers was that if they were excluded it would reduce the gene pool, cut off some lines and because some known carriers are of imported champion lines.

This is dubious, sentimental nonsense to me. Heredity is a tricky thing. An individual may show clear but I know that in rabbits, all the nasty recessives can turn up to 40 generations later.

What is said to be so in theory doesnít always pan out in real life, often because of random factors. I had an accidental mating between a Cashmere Lop buck and a Chinchilla crossbreed. Result Ė the entire litter looked like pure Cashmeres. Their ears all lopped at 3 weeks never to rise again and they all looked like the father. Naturally, they went as pets, appearances to the contrary. I mated a Satin Buff cavy to a Self Buff (this is normal practice otherwise the Satins lose type). The result should have been a litter of Satin carriers. Instead it was 100% Satin.

I would venture to say that unsafe breeding practices such as using carriers of hereditary problems, and animals with poor resistance just because they are of championship lines or their removal from the breeding program might impact on the gene pool (load of tosh as cats and dogs can be imported, rabbits and cavies cannot), is what is wrong with a lot of cat and dog breeds today.

 Apart from the exaggerated look some of them have with pushed in noses and the resulting respiratory problems, look at all these new diseases. When we got our first Siamese back in 1971, all we had to worry about was feline enteritis and cat flu. Now thereís Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV), Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) and Feline Immune Deficiency Disease (FIV) , as well as the above mentioned PKD and even hip dysplasia in some breeds. I know of two cats (Burmese) who died suddenly at under 12 months. You expect cavies, even rabbits to drop dead unexpectedly at an early age but not cats. It is usually a species you canít kill with a brick.

So, my view is, donít use rabbits or cavies who have a hereditary disease or condition or who may be carriers of same.

It goes without saying that your rabbits or cavies should be housed properly in secure cages, the right size for their breed in a shed or in banks of weather-proof cages outdoors.

Donít skimp or cut corners with cages which are too small or overcrowding whether it is too many crammed into one cage or two many cages crammed into a small shed. Rabbits mostly prefer to be on their own, apart from mothers with litters (and even they can get stroppy with small-fry).

The cages should be cleaned out properly weekly, Most of mine have litter trays and the few who donít have Ďtoilet cornersí. The trays are easy but the toilet corners need all the refuse removed. I use a paint scraper to clear rabbit crud out of the corners. I clean and disinfect the cage with dilute cleaning vinegar (white vinegar) in a spray bottle. It is an effective antibacterial but doesnít smell chemical-like and is harmless to the animals (the cavies get it, too). One rabbit has a carpet, the other have wood shavings and meadow-hay to much on.

Donít run rabbits on newspaper, at least if you intend to show them, as it stains the feet. The carpet bunny gets a bundle of hay as well. Hay is fibre, keeps them regular and wears down their teeth.

I have flyscreen wire tacked over the fronts of the cages to protect them from myxo-carrying mosquitoes and flies., a bug-zapper and some citronella candles. I have recently installed a Bantix Mosquito-Slayer system.

They should have a good diet and fresh water. There have been a number of articles in Fur & Feather on the importance of feed in producing that show winner. Making sure they have a good diet can be hard in drought as the quality of greenstuff is often not what it should be because of lack of nutrients in the soil, drought stress in the plant, etc., not to mention the ridiculous prices the supermarkets charge. But we can only try.

In Canberraís winters, some rabbits lose condition so their diet might need supplementing. I mix in to their usual feed that muesli with rolled oats and dried fruit in it, sometimes with Weetabix crumbled up.

Last year I used garlic powder and spirulina (a form of blue-green algae with a lot of protein, Vitamin B complex, minerals and other vitamins, available from health food shops) sprinkled on their food.

At moment I am adding fresh veg to their food, mainly because there are cavies in their shed and it is easy to add a bit more for the bunnies to the bowl I take out to the cavies. They have carrot, spinach, apple, Chinese cabbage or chicory.

Another important point is donít believe everything you read on the internet. Like the rest of creation, it is subject to Sturgeonís Law: 90% of everything is rubbish.

There are a lot of people out there in cyberspace who get a bee in their bonnet about something they have decided is bad and go on a crusade about it. We live in an age of ill-informed zealots.

Others have read a few websites and suddenly become experts on rabbits or cavies, not taking into account that these are overseas websites and the information on them refers to situations and conditions in another country. They then treat this information as gospel and post it on their own websites or answer questions posed in online forums or email groups and seem very unwilling to be persuaded otherwise, even when faced with contrary facts. Their misinformation also serves to confuse newbies.

A good example of the first scenario is the Great Wood-shavings Scare. This one wonít go away and keeps coming round every couple of years. Apparently red cedar shavings in the USA have caused liver failure in rabbits according to some studies. This has led to all wood shavings being considered dangerous by those who donít read things properly and thus newcomers are confused. Two things to note: wood-shavings out here are not red cedar and the wood is Australian, grown in Australian soils so is likely to be rather different in chemical make-up.

Another one is the listing of Wandering Jew as a poisonous plant. There are several plants with the popular name of Wandering Jew. The Tradescantias (native to North America or Mexico) probably are poisonous. Some of the Toadflaxes (native to Europe) are also called Wandering Jew and are poisonous. However, the common or garden variety of Wandering Jew we have in our backyards is Commelina Cyanea and is native to NSW and Queensland. It is not poisonous. Cavies love it and Iíve also fed it to my rabbits with no ill-effect.

Similarly with hays. They use different names for them in the USA and again they will have a different make-up, the protein levels may differ.

So when looking for information, choose reputable sites (the British Rabbit Council, rabbit clubs and recommended sites belonging to breeders. Not all of them, as some breeders can be frightful twits). Be careful and assess the information you read Ė what are the sources? Does it refer to overseas conditions? Does it apply here?

Finally, buy a British Rabbit Council Breed Standards book or The Australian National Cavy Council Approved Standards for Exhibition Cavies even if you have to mortgage your grandmother.

It never ceases to amaze me the number of people I come across who call themselves breeders yet donít own a Breed Standards book. Some may have one but it is plain they have never read it as the sort of questions they ask or comments they make could be resolved by looking in it.

Study your breed to get a mental picture of what you are aiming for. Breeding without a Standard is like driving a car without knowing the road rules. You may know how to start and stop the car but you probably wonít reach your destination in one piece. And remember: we breed according to the British Rabbit Council standards. The standards of other countries should only be referenced when discussing or trying to breed a breed not recognised by the BRC such as the Jersey Wooly, not when you canít get your rabbits to conform to the BRC standard!

For information on cavy care and cavy showing visit the Capital Country Cavy Club website.